The Universe of Discourse
Sun, 12 Mar 2006

On saying too much, or, bad things come in threes
Long ago, I had a conversation with a woman who had recently read Naomi Wolf's book The Beauty Myth. She was extolling the book, which I had not read, and mentioned that Wolf had an extensive discussion of the popular dichotomy between beauty and intelligence. She told me that Wolf had cited Archie comics as containing an example of this dichotomy, in the characters of Veronica and Big Ethel.

I had been nodding and agreeing up to that point. But at the mention of Big Ethel I was quite startled, and said that that spoiled the argument for me, and made me doubt the conclusion. I now had doubts about what had seemed so plausible a moment before.

Veronica is indeed one half of a contrasting pair in Archie comics. But Veronica and Big Ethel? No. Veronica is not complementary to Big Ethel. The counterpart of Veronica is Betty. The contrast is not between beauty and brains but between rich and poor, and between their derived properties, spoiled and sweet. A good point could be made about Veronica and Betty, but it was not the point that Wolf wanted to make; her citation of Veronica and Big Ethel as exemplifying the opposition of beauty and intelligence was just bizarre. Big Ethel, to my knowledge, has never been portrayed as unusually intelligent. She is characterized by homeliness and by her embarrassing and unrequited attraction to Jughead, not by intelligence.

Why would this make me doubt the conclusion of Wolf's argument? Because I had been fully ready to believe the conclusion, that our culture manufactures a division between attractiveness and intelligence for women, and makes them choose one or the other. I had imagined that it would be easy to produce examples demonstrating the point. But the example Wolf chose was completely inept. And, as I said at the time, "Naomi Wolf is very smart, and has studied this closely and thought about it for a long time. If that is the best example that she can come up with, then perhaps I'm wrong, and there really aren't as many examples as I thought there would be." Without the example, I would have agreed with the conclusion. With the example, intended to support the conclusion, I wasn't so sure.

Now, I come to the real point of this note. Paul Vallely has written an article for The Independent on "How Islamic inventors changed the world". He lists twenty of the most influential contributions of the Muslim world, including the discovery of coffee, inoculation, and the fountain pen. I am not so clear on the history of the technology here. Some of it I know is correct; some is plausible; some is extremely dubious. (The crank, not invented before 1206? Please.) But the whole article is spoiled for me, except as a topic of derision, because of three errors.

Item #1 concerns the discovery of the coffee bean. One might expect this to have been discovered in prehistoric times by local Ethiopians, long before the founding of Islam. But I'm in no position to argue with it, and I was ready to give Vallely the benefit of the doubt.

Item #2 on Vallely's list was more worrying. It says "Ibn al-Haitham....set up the first Camera Obscura (from the Arab word qamara for a dark or private room)." It may or may not be true that "qamara" is an "Arab word" (by which I suppose Vallely means an "Arabic word") for "chamber", but it is certainly true that this word, if it exists, is not the source of the English word "camera". I don't know from "qamara", but "camera obscura" is Latin for "dark chamber". "Camera" means "chamber" in Latin and has for thousands of years. The two words, in fact, are etymologically the same, which is why they have almost the same spelling. It is for this reason that the part of a legal hearing held in the judge's private chambers is said to be "in camera".

There might be an Arabic word "qamara", for all I know. If there is, it might be derived from the Latin. (The Latin word is not derived from Arabic, either; it is from Greek καμαρα, which refers to anything with an arched cover.) Two things are sure: The English word "camera" is not derived from Arabic, and Vallely did not bother to pick up a dictionary before he said that it was.

Anyone can make a mistake. But I started to get excited when I read item 3, which is about the game of chess. Vallely says "The word rook comes from the Persian rukh, which means chariot." This is true, sort of, but it is off in a subtle way. The rooks or castles of modern chess did start out as chariots. (Moving castles around never did make much sense.) And "rook" is indeed from Persian rukh. But rukh doesn't exactly mean a chariot. It means a chariot in the game of chess. The Persian word for a chariot outside of chess was different. (I don't remember what it was.) Saying that rukh is the Persian word for chariot is like saying that "rook" is the English word for castle.

I was only on item 3 and had already encountered one serious error of etymology and one other item which although it wasn't exactly an error, was peculiar. I considered that I wouldn't really have enough material for a blog post, unless Vallely made at least one more serious mistake. But there were still 17 of 20 items left. So I read on. Would Vallely escape?

No, or I would not have written this article. Item 17 says "The modern cheque comes from the Arabic saqq, a written vow to pay for goods when they were delivered...". But no. The correct etymology is fascinating and bizarre. "Cheque" is derived from Norman French "exchequer", which was roughly the equivalent of the treasury and internal revenue department in England starting around 1300. Why was the internal revenue department called the exchequer? Because it was named after the chessboard, which was also called "exchequer".

What do chessboards have to do with internal revenue? Ah, I am glad you wondered. Hindu-Arabic numerals had not yet become popular in Europe; numbers were still recorded using Roman numerals. It is extremely difficult to calculate efficiently with Roman numerals. How, then did the internal revenue department calculate taxes owed and amounts payable?

They used an abacus. But it wasn't an abacus like modern Chinese or Japanese abacuses, with beads strung on wires. A medieval European abacus was a table with a raised edge and a grid of squares ruled on it. The columns of squares represented ones, tens, hundreds, and so on. You would put metal counters, called jettons, on the squares to represent numbers. Three jettons on a "hundred" square represented three hundred; four jettons on the square to its right represented forty. Each row of squares recorded a separate numeral. To add two numerals together, just take the jettons from one row, move them to the other row, and then resolve the carrying appropriately: Ten jettons on a square can be removed and replaced with a single jetton on the square to the left.

The internal revenue department, the "exchequer", got its name from these counting-boards covered with ruled squares like chessboards.

(The word "exchequer" meaning a chessboard was derived directly from the name of the game: Old French eschecs, Medieval Latin scacci, and so on, all from shah, which means "king" in Persian. The word "checkered" is also closely related.)

So, in summary: the game is "chess", or eschek in French; the board is therefore exchequer, and since the counting-tables of the treasury department look like chessboards, the treasury department itself becomes known as the exchequer. The treasury department, like all treasury departments, issues notes promising to pay certain sums at certain times, and these notes are called "exchequer notes" or just "exchequers", later shortened (by the English) to "cheques" or (by Americans) to "checks". Arabic saqq, if there is such a word, does not come into it. Once again, it is clear that Vallely's research was shoddy.

While I was writing up this article, yet another serious error came to light. Item 11 says "The windmill was invented in 634 for a Persian caliph...". Now, I am not very knowledgeable about history, and my historical education is very poor. But that was so peculiar that it startled even me. 634 seemed to me much too early for any clever inventions to be attributed to Muslims. Then I looked it up, and so it was. Muhammad himself had only died in 632.

As for the Persian caliph Vallely mentions, he did not exist. The caliphs are the successors of Muhammad, so of course there was one in 634---the first one, in fact. Abu Bakr reigned from the death of the Prophet in 632 until his own death in 634; he was succeeded by `Umar. Neither was Persian. They were both Arabs, as you would expect of Muslim leaders in 634. There were no Persian caliphs in 634.

My own ignorance of Islam and its history is vast and deep, but at least I had a vague idea that 634 was extremely early. Vallely could have looked up the date of the founding of the caliphate as easily as I did. Why didn't he? Well, perhaps it was just a typo, and should have said 834 or 934. In that case it's just poor editing and inattention. But perhaps it was a genuine factual error, in which case Vallely was not only not paying attention, but is apparently even less familiar with Islamic history than I am, difficult as that is to achieve. In which case we have this article about the twenty greatest contributions of Islam written by a guy who literally does not know the first thing about Islam.

And so this article, which I hoped to enjoy, was spoiled by a series of errors. I am very sympathetic to the idea that the brilliant history of Islamic science and engineering has been neglected by European scholarship. One of my very first blog posts was about the Islamic use of algebra to solve complex probate problems. Just last week I was reading about al-Biruni's invention, around 1000 years ago, of an improved method for measuring the size of the earth, a topic that Vallely treats as item 18. But after reading Vallely's article, I worried a bit that the case might have been overstated. Perhaps the contributions of Muslims are not as large as I had thought?

Fortunately, there was an alternative: the conclusion is correct, and the inept support from the author speaks only to the author's ineptness, not to the validity of the conclusion. I did not have that alternative with Naomi Wolf, who is not inept. (Also, see this addendum.)

With only cursory attention, I found three major errors of fact in this one short article. How many more did I miss, I wonder? Did Abbas ibn Firnas really invent a working parachute, as Vallely says? Maybe it was someone else. Maybe there was no parachute. Maybe there was, but it didn't work. Maybe the whole thing is a propaganda invention by someone who wants to promote Islam, and has suckered Vallely into repeating fiction. Maybe all of these. Someone knows the truth, but it isn't me, and I can't trust Vallely.

Were the Turks vaccinating people eighty years before the Europeans, or did Vallely swallow a tall tale? I don't know, and I can't trust Vallely.

People sometimes joke "I am stupider for having read this," but I really believe this was the case here. The article is worse than useless, because it has polluted my brain with a lot of unreliable non-information. I will have to be careful not to think that quilted fabrics were first brought to Europe by the crusaders, who got them from the Muslims. My real fear is that the "fact" will remain in my brain for years, long after I have forgotten how unreliable Vallely is, and that I will bring it out again as real information, which it is not. True or not, it is too unreliable to be information.

The best I can hope for now is that I will forget everything Vallely says, and meet the true parts again somewhere else in the future. In the meantime, I am worse off for having read it.

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